I’m about to say something that younger readers will no doubt take as an old man’s nostalgic ramblings. A sequel to a surprise indie hit from a couple of years back, Hand of Fate 2, evoked in me feelings that I had when playing the seminal CRPG Ultima IV 30 years ago on my Commodore 64. It delivered the same excitement of adventuring in uncharted territory, discovering strange new events and challenging foes from often disadvantageous positions. Hand of Fate 2 isn’t exactly in the same genre but is a gripping role-playing experience nonetheless. It's part collectible card game, part choose-your-adventure and part Arkham-style brawler, all in one awesome deck.
Why did Hand of Fate 2 remind me of Ultima IV, out of all possible games? Part of it was the cards. In old Ultima games, a gypsy woman would read your fortune from tarot cards, defining how your playable character (avatar) turned out. Here, everything happening in the game is told in cards. Also, similarly to the old role-playing games, Hand of Fate 2 feeds your imagination. The events aren’t presented through grandiose cutscenes. Instead, they’re told as a short prose, in an expressive and clear manner. The writing in the game is excellent all around.
Before anything happens, you need to create the playing character, something not seen in the predecessor. Though rudimentary (gender, four appearances based on races, and a few hairstyles and colors), it goes a long way to immerse you in the adventures ahead. Your hero or heroine is basically a blank canvas who is complemented by the choices you make through cards which represent fate and events. You fill in the rest yourself. For example, I fancied my character to be a Mongolian warrior princess, keen on adventuring faraway lands.
There you are, sitting at the table opposite a mysterious, hooded dealer, equally advising and mocking you through Anthony Skordi’s fine performance. This time, he’s not exactly your opponent, like he was in the first Hand of Fate, but more like a game master who builds the adventure from pre-chosen and random cards. The resource cards, depicting your current companion (another new feature), health, food, gold, and fame, sit at the bottom-let corner. The center of the table is laid out with cards face down, each hiding encounters in the current challenge. When the player token hops onto the card, it’s turned over and the encounter is played out. It’s either a gambling minigame (decided either by drawing cards, throwing dices, or hitting the right stone in a pendulum), an RPG-style decision point, or third-person hack and slash combat arena. Often, the events are a mix of all three.
Your character’s journey is not entirely in your own hands. Much of the game hangs on chance. Like I needed to tell that! When you best a challenge (chosen from the overall map which is revealed through progression), you gain new encounter cards that you can use to build up your deck for the next challenge. New cards remain unknown assets as long as you haven't expose them during the challenge. Eventually, there will be a heap of cards to choose from - some are clear trump cards, some are nuisances, and some offer high risks for high rewards.
Little by little, you get to know the cards and can decide which will fit your play-style for the challenges ahead. Indeed, part of the fun is the deck building. I liked to equally split my deck with well-worn favorites (much to the dealer’s amusement) as well as newly earned cards. I must admit, at times I chose the cards based only on their awesome art and hoped it was a risk worth taking. Sometimes, you choose a bad hand and the challenge is eventually doomed. But you won't know if you didn’t try it out. For example, a perfectly smooth run of an already hard Strength challenge went south in an instant when I bumped into an encounter I hadn’t prepared for. It was the card I didn’t know and that was the reason I had chosen it in the first place, just to check it out. The next time, you’ll know better how to prepare and build decks accordingly. Some tokens you earn during failed challenges are still kept though, so not all is for vain.
All the same, Hand of Fate 2 is also a clever resource management game, based on what you’re dealt with. Advancing though the uncharted territories requires you to eat, depending on how hazardous the area is to travel. If you’re low on food (also used by the campfire to heal up), you have several options. Hit a general store and you can buy food. But what if you’re low on gold too, perhaps stolen by goblins you happened to bump into and couldn’t chase down in time? You could perhaps trade equipment for food but then you could be left without proper weapons for certain encounters (thieves will dodge your two-hand weapon, too bad you sold your daggers!). It’s completely possible to die out of starvation in a cold, winter mountain, with pockets full of gold. If only you had chosen more encounter cards with possible food rewards…
If all that sounds complicated, it’s really not. The gameplay becomes fairly self-explanatory through practice and all the finer details are familiarized with in due time. The beauty of Hand of Fate 2 is how diverse the challenges and the encounters within can be. There are 22 challenges in all and none are quite alike, despite the similar mindset. One time, you'll start barely alive after an encounter with menacing ogre, with 10 points of health left and eating doesn’t make you any better. The next, you’l be trying to find a hermit mage from an ever-changing forest before imperial soldiers find him. Or you’ll be rescuing as many citizens as possible from a plague-ridden town while the officials just ignore them. Indeed, ensuing stories hidden under different challenges all build a bigger picture. There’s a concurring theme of the empire willing to wage war with North, neglecting its own people. Not to mention the mages being oppressed and a mysterious plague, turning its victim into raving lunatics, being blamed on them.
Some encounters take place as third person brawlers, with the chosen companion providing support. Superficially, the fighting looks and plays like in Batman Arkham-series, with prompts indicating when to dodge or counter enemy attacks. But what separates Hand of Fate 2 from the caped crusader’s melee is that it’s not foolproof button smashing. No, here it takes skill and strategy, reading the enemies’ moves to gain advantage. Weapon types also play a role in successful fights. You don’t fare well against hulking Northerners with daggers while two-handed weapons can make a short work of well-shielded imperial soldiers. Artifacts, like holy grenades (I always appreciate a Monty Python reference!) and healing potions help in battle. Of course, like any better weapons and shields, they need to be earned from appropriate encounter cards. The controls are responsive and the excellent character animation makes the fights constantly exciting. The scraps are short and played out in small areas which helps prevent them being boring in the long run.
Much of Hand of Fate 2’s appeal comes from the fact it could be a real collectible card game as it plays perfectly within its set of rules. Even so, the video game format is just as fine (and doesn't take up any physical space!). The game is challenging and then some. You can blame the bad luck to a certain degree, considering how much of the gameplay is dependent on a chance, but often, it’s as much careless deck-building as playing poorly in the fighting scenes. Like it or not, it all feels fair and square. There are only a limited number of cards you can choose for each challenge, divided into encounters, equipment, and supplies. You have to be smart about it as you can’t prepare for everything in advance.
Hands of Fate 2 leaves much room for imagination which is welcomed in this age of hyperrealism. Reading the text descriptions and imagining the events in your own mind can be more exciting than watching a fancy cutscenes. Not that the game lacks in presentation. The character models on the battlefield are chunky and likable, fighting out in nicely detailed and varied surroundings. A moody incidental soundtrack accompanies the events. And then there’s the infamous dealer, back from beyond the 13th gate. His room is at the same time homey and intimidating, as his scarred eyes peer at you, judging your play with a sneer. In the end, Hand of Fate 2 gave me more excitement than some recent big-budget dark fantasy games. It relies wisely on ageless means of gameplay and storytelling. If the first Hands of Fate was journeyman's practice, the art is mastered in the sequel. At a mere $25, the game is the best entertainment for chilly winter evenings.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.